The Marathon Monks

This is a nice 20-minute documentary on a famous ritual in the Tendai sect of Buddhism called the kaihōgyō (回峰行).

The documentary covers the life of one monk at the end of his trials in the Kaihogyo, which is a very extreme, austere set of challenges of life-and-death. If a monk survives all these ordeals, then he becomes a living saint among Tendai Buddhists. The video says it all, this is very dangerous, austere training. Tendai Buddhism has a reputation for being a particularly austere sect of Buddhism in its monastic practices. Other Tendai Buddhists I’ve met online undergo lighter, more routine training suche chanting mantras while being doused with cold water, lots of hiking and so on. Tendai Buddhism to me seems like a kind of “Bodhisattva Boot-camp”. Of course, these practices are the extreme practices, and many monks within Tendai Buddhism do not undergo them, but the it’s important to note that they are part of the tradition.

When I first watched this video, I thought the idea was ludicrous. In the very first sermon of the Buddha,* the Buddha taught his idea of the Middle Way, which in his words:

“Bhikkhus [monks], these two extremes ought not to be cultivated by one gone forth from the house-life. What are the two? There is devotion to indulgence of pleasure in the objects of sensual desire, which is inferior, low, vulgar, ignoble, and leads to no good; and there is devotion to self-torment, which is painful, ignoble and leads to no good.

But then I watched the video a second time later, and I realized that while extreme and unusual, the training is still based on Buddhist practice. Halfway through, another monk comments that the challenges are not meant to control desire, but to learn how to deny it. This is important in Buddhism because people tend to read the Four Noble Truths and think that they have to get rid of all desire. Buddhist training however is learning how to maintain focus and keep your mind from wandering away when desires and selfish thoughts pull it this way or that. In other words, acknowledging the desire, but denying it nevertheless. Until one practices very deeply in Buddhism, and learns to uproot the deep underlying causes of desire, desire will still exist. It can’t be removed, and as the Lankavatara Sutra teaches, people build up a great deal of “habit-energy” from this life and previous lives that can’t just be washed away.

So, the training really is just a challenge ultimately about the mind. The physical challenge is terrible, but the mental agony is somehow worse, so as the monks learn to confront their own minds and overcome the habit-energy, they can complete the trials.

However, there’s more to this video as I watched it again. Later, one of the monks talks about how through the training he realized that all “everything and everyone are equal.” This of course is a deeper teaching in Buddhism, not something you can intellectualize, but something you come to realize. Each person will realize this truth differently though. Some people really have to learn this truth the hard way, while others learn it through different means. Each person comes to this world with different karma, different habit-energy, different lives and dispositions, so it’s up to each person to work out their own way to realization.

For another monk who did the challenge twice, his life before ordination had been a disaster and failure. For him, the only way to overcome this was to undergo the austere challenges twice. For someone else of a different disposition, the way to overcome desire and to awaken could be the Daily Grind of parenting and work, or through living in retreat as a monk. Each person has a different disposition, and respond to the teachings differently. Having seen this video, I’ve come to respect the monks in the Kaihogyo rather than criticize their efforts. My path, my disposition is different, so I would not undergo those trials, but I understand why they do it for themselves. So I gassho to their efforts, and to the efforts of all who support them.

Namu Amida Butsu

* – Alternate version found in the Agamas can be read here.


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7 Comments on “The Marathon Monks”

  1. Kyoshin says:

    “Shinran, the founder of the Jodo Shinshu sect, had once been a Tendai monk for 20 years. In a letter by his wife to his daughter, she tells a story where Shinran had been circumambulating a statue of Amida Buddha for 95 days without sitting down.”

    Doug, I don’t have the letters in front of me right now but I’m not sure that it does say this. (Though I am happy to be corrected if you have the passage to hand).

    I do recall that Eshinni says Shinran was a ‘doso’ but precisely what a doso was is a matter of debate. Most non-sectarian scholars seem to suggest it was quite a low-ranking role, probably of monks who performed the music and chanting to acocmpany those actually engaged in the jogyozammai practice. Of course sectarian people like Eiken Kobai claim Shinran was engaged in the most elite practices such as the one you describe. In the end we’ll probably never know.

  2. Doug says:

    Hi Kyoushin,

    We’ll have to dig up the letters. I know that Shinran did do that circumambulating practice since that’s how he attained a vision from Kannon Bodhisattva who told him something to effect of “Go seek a monk named Honen” and that Kannon would find him a wife. I thought that was from Eshinni’s letters since Shinran didn’t like tlaking about his monk days himself.

    Hm, wonder what it was from, then…

    P.S. I might still be getting my facts up, so we should double-check. I wrote late night one night, so…

  3. Kyōshin says:

    OK I get what you are referring to now … Shinran’s retreat at the Rokkakudo after he came down from Mt. Hiei. The letter in question is on my old website: http://uk.geocities.com/roof_of_hell/seiten/eshinni.html

    It doesn’t actually mention the specifics of what practice he was doing though other than then time period. I’m not sure if there is any evidence as to whether he was doing jogyozammai type practice or not.

    As an aside; in Eshinni’s letter it is Prince Shotoku who appears but Kakunyo later reported it as Kannon. Of course Shotoku was seen as an avatar of Kannon but it is an interesting alteration to the tale nonetheless.

  4. Doug says:

    Ha ha ha, yeah, believe that’s what it was. Yeah, it’s hard to separate what Shinran did/didn’t do since, as you pointed out, some sources make him out to be a hero, while others are more down-to-earth. I think I might remove that reference anyways since I am not so confident on it now. :p

  5. Dai Chi says:

    Thanks so much for this post (btw the video won’t stream, you need to go to youtube to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S06oMxdt40A). I have passed the link along to some of my Tendai colleagues.

    I’m far too old to take on the full kaihogyo, but a less rigorous version is the mainstay of my practice. For 2 to 3 hours a day I walk from sacred place to sacred place in all weathers. I believe the practice is about losing the sense of “I” and discovering the Buddha-nature in everything. Although difficult to describe in words, it is a powerful and deeply rewarding practice even at a level far short of the heroic efforts of the individuals in the video. If I am successful in completing my training and am ordained, I hope to teach and train others in it.

    Once again, many thanks.

  6. Alexander says:

    It really is an extraordinary thing: I wonder how they do it with such little sleep.

    Also, I wonder how many practitioners have committed suicide when they didn’t complete? Killing youself is generally regarded as an extremely negative act, of course.

    Also, I wonder that so few practitioners have done it. It seem like: if a few people could do it, then a few more would too.

  7. Just Sitting says:

    Doug, thanks for pointing out this great documentary!


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